Friday,26 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1365, (19 - 25 October 2017)
Friday,26 April, 2019
Issue 1365, (19 - 25 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

A new DG for UNESCO

French candidate Audrey Azoulay has been elected the new director-general of UNESCO in the wake of last week’s decision by the US and Israel to leave the organisation, reports David Tresilian in Paris


A new DG for UNESCO
A new DG for UNESCO

After five rounds of balloting among members of the organisation’s executive board and a further nail-biting run-off between the runners-up from the first four rounds, French candidate Audrey Azoulay, a 45-year-old former French minister of culture, is set to become the next director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) after elections in Paris last week.

Her election came on the fifth round of voting on Friday after an earlier run-off had eliminated Egyptian candidate Moushira Khattab, a former diplomat and minister, whose supporters then helped to defeat surprise frontrunner Hamad bin Abdel-Aziz Al-Kawari, a former Qatari minister of culture. Azoulay was eventually declared the winner with 30 votes against Al-Kawari’s 28 late last Friday evening.

Her election is now expected to be ratified by UNESCO’s General Conference in November. She will become the second woman and the second person of French nationality to hold the post.

However, while the manner of Azoulay’s election revealed deep-seated divisions within the organisation’s executive board and also gave rise to allegations of possible “violations… throughout the electoral process,” in the words of Egyptian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zeid, these were as nothing compared to the US decision, announced last Thursday as the voting for a new director-general continued, that the country would be leaving the organisation.

According to a US state department announcement on 12 October, the US desired to “remain engaged with UNESCO as a non-member observer state in order to contribute US views, perspectives and expertise” on issues such as “the protection of world heritage, advocating for press freedoms, and promoting scientific collaboration and education.” But it had decided to withdraw because of “concerns at mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organisation, and continuing anti-Israel bias.”

The US had earlier frozen its financial contributions to the organisation in 2011 when a vote by the UNESCO General Conference had led to the admission of the state of Palestine as a member. Last year, UNESCO came under joint US and Israeli fire when members of the organisation’s World Heritage Committee, responsible for the management of World Heritage sites across the globe, voted to retain the site of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls on its List of Heritage in Danger and criticised Israel for refusing to allow UNESCO experts access to the site.

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said in New York that the last straw had come when UNESCO had placed the old city of Hebron in the Occupied Palestinian Territories on its List of Heritage in Danger, identifying it as a Palestinian World Heritage site. The “politicisation” of UNESCO was a “chronic embarrassment,” she said, adding that “just as we said in 1984 when [former US] president Reagan withdrew from UNESCO, US taxpayers should no longer be on the hook to pay for policies that are hostile to our values and make a mockery of justice and common sense.”

The US decision to leave UNESCO was followed later on the same day by an Israeli announcement that the country would also be leaving the organisation. In response, outgoing UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, who remains in office until Azoulay takes over at the end of November, expressed her “profound regret” at the US decision.

“Universality is critical to UNESCO’s mission to strengthen international peace and security in the face of hatred and violence and to defend human rights and dignity,” Bokova said in a statement. “This is all the more true today, when the rise of violent extremism and terrorism calls for new long-term responses for peace and security.”

“At the time when the fight against violent extremism calls for renewed investment in education [and] in dialogue among cultures to prevent hatred, it is deeply regrettable that the United States should withdraw from the United Nations agency leading these issues.”

Even before the diplomatic squabbling over the organisation’s new director-general and the news of the withdrawal from it of both the US and Israel had emerged, UNESCO’s future had already appeared uncertain. Bokova told the French newspaper Le Monde before the elections took place that while UNESCO was “a dream for the world,” it also faced formidable “financial and political difficulties.”

These difficulties were partly owing to the post-2011 freeze in US budget contributions, and last Thursday’s news of the US withdrawal will have made them worse.

Reacting to the news of her election and of the US and Israeli withdrawal from the organisation, Azoulay said last week that “at a moment of crisis it is necessary to become more than ever involved and to look for ways to strengthen [UNESCO] and not to abandon it.” Her first priority would be to “restore the credibility” of the organisation and the “confidence of its member states,” she said.

It may be that Azoulay is well-placed to do just that, though the challenges she faces in the wake of the US and Israeli withdrawal remain immense. While her election at first seemed unlikely, with Khattab telling the French news magazine Le Point earlier this year that there had been “a tacit agreement that [France] won’t present a candidate for the director-general job” as it was “understood that the next mandate would be awarded to the Arab world,” as competition between the rival Egyptian and Qatari candidates heated up, Azoulay began to emerge as an acceptable compromise candidate.

Her chances of landing the job would perhaps have remained slim, had it not been for the diplomatic rivalry between the Qatari and Egyptian candidates. Both countries seem to have been prepared to engage in intensive diplomatic lobbying in order to ensure the success of their candidate. And according to French media Qatar sought to influence the election through donations to UNESCO programmes and all-expenses-paid trips for members of the organisation’s executive board to Doha.

When it became clear in last week’s run-off that the choice would be between Al-Kawari and Azoulay after Khattab’s elimination, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry switched its support to Azoulay. For many observers, this decision was predictable given the current dispute between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE (the Arab Quartet) and Qatar that has seen these countries break off diplomatic relations with Doha, accusing it of supporting terrorist movements and having close links with Iran.

Born in Paris in 1972, Azoulay comes from a distinguished Moroccan-Jewish family, though she herself holds only French citizenship. Her CV indicates an unblemished French elite education, with the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA), the traditional school for future French senior civil servants, being followed by the Institut des Etudes politiques (“Sciences Po”) in Paris, the school of choice among French politicians.

She then held various posts in the French public sector, notably in the Centre National du Cinéma, a state film agency, before being appointed minister of culture under former French president François Hollande in February 2016, holding the job until the latter’s defeat in this year’s French presidential elections.

There is little here for commentators to chew on, particularly foreign ones, since Azoulay does not seem to have strayed far, if at all, from the expected paths. However, it may be that her particular set of competences, her youth, and her distance from the divisions at UNESCO that had earlier suggested victory for either of the ostensibly better-placed Egyptian or Qatari candidates may now assist her in calming the waters.

However, it seems unlikely that in themselves they will be enough to persuade the US or Israel to come back to the organisation.


Temporary respite

THE POLITICAL war between the two Arab candidates, Egypt and Qatar, for the post of UNESCO director-general momentarily eclipsed the simmering battles inside the UN body regarding the listing of religious sites in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

The World Heritage body came under fire from Israel and the United States for adopting decisions considered as anti-Israel, prompting the latter to announce withdrawing its UNESCO membership. Israel, which welcomed the move, said it was planning to follow suit, but so far has not done so.

With the election of a new director-general last week, the French national Audrey Azoulay, who is Jewish and of Moroccan descent, many, especially in Israel, are asking if her leadership of UNESCO will influence the organisation’s policies. This seems unlikely given the body’s membership of 195 states which is beyond the director-general’s influence.

Over the past year, UNESCO has triggered Israel’s ire for adopting a draft decision in October 2016 entitled “Occupied Palestine” that condemned the occupying power, Israel, for pursuing excavations and construction in East Jerusalem, particularly the Old City, and for violations of the Al-Aqsa Mosque including restricting Muslims’ access to their place of worship.

Although the document affirmed the importance of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls for the three monotheistic religions, and contained no wording that excluded Jewish ties to Jerusalem, Israel accused UNESCO of adopting a resolution denying this historic background.

It was, however, the document’s adoption of the Arabic names Al-Aqsa Mosque and Al-Haram Al-Sharif to refer to the Esplanade, rather than the Jewish “Temple Mount” which most provoked Israel. UNESCO has always used the Arabic names to refer to the existing Al-Aqsa Mosque (the third holiest site in Islam), rather than Temple Mount, which alludes to the ancient Jewish house of worship destroyed in 587 BCE.

In July this year, UNESCO recognised the Old City of Hebron in the West Bank as a Palestinian World Heritage Site, fuelling further outrage from Israel. The Palestinian city occupied by Israel since 1967 includes the Al-Ibrahimi Mosque, an Islamic landmark and the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a holy site for Jews. 

Shortly before Azoulay’s election, UNESCO postponed discussion of two decisions condemning Israeli occupation policies in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Draft decisions 202 EX/39 and 202 EX/38 will now be included on the agenda of the 204th session of UNESCO executive board a year from now, giving Israel more time to lobby against them.

Draft decision EX/38 regrets Israeli’s failure to cease persistent excavations, tunnelling, works and projects in East Jerusalem, particularly in and around the Old City of Jerusalem, which are illegal under international law. 

The decision condemns Israel’s refusal to implement the request to appoint a permanent UNESCO representative to be stationed in East Jerusalem and report on a regular basis on all aspects of the fields of competence of UNESCO in East Jerusalem.

It stresses “the urgent need” to implement the UNESCO reactive monitoring mission to the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls, and invites the director-general and the World Heritage Centre to exert all possible efforts, in line with their mandates and in conformity with the provisions of the relevant UNESCO Conventions, decisions and resolutions, to ensure the prompt implementation of the mission and, in case of non-implementation, to propose possible effective measures to ensure its implementation.

The decision takes issue with Israel’s closure of Gaza since 2007 and military confrontations in and around the strip and the civilian casualties caused, including attacks on schools and other educational and cultural facilities including the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) schools.

Regarding the two Palestinian sites of Al-Haram Al-Ibrahimi / Tomb of the Patriarchs in Al- Khalil / Hebron and the Bilal Ibn Rabah Mosque / Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, while reaffirming that the two sites are an integral part of Occupied Palestinian Territory, and share the conviction affirmed by the international community that the two sites are of religious significance for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the draft decision condemns ongoing Israeli excavations, works, construction of private roads for settlers and of a Wall inside the Old City of Al-Khalil / Hebron “which are illegal under international law and harmfully affect the authenticity and integrity of the site.”   

It regrets the visual impact of the Wall on the site of Bilal Ibn Rabah Mosque / Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem as well as the strict ban on the access of Palestinian Christian and Muslim worshippers to the site, and demands that the Israeli authorities restore the original character of the landscape around the site and lift the ban on access to it.

 Draft decision EX/39 reports on assistance provided by UNESCO to the Palestinian Authority and to relevant Palestinian stakeholders from February 2017 to June 2017.

It concludes that the Israeli occupation continues to impair the ability of children and youth to access schools in Palestine, with there being a shortage of school buildings in Area C, part of the West Bank, and in East Jerusalem and negative impacts on the rate of children dropping out of school.

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